PLOT: A true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a home which was the site of a brutal family slaying several years earlier. While searching his new home, he not only discovers home movie footage of the crime, but also a box containing super 8 footage of several other, similar slayings- throughout which a diabolical pattern begins to emerge.
REVIEW: SINISTER has got to be one of the most buzzed-about genre flicks to come along in a while. Fresh off it's warm reception at Fantastic Fest, SINISTER is now making it's way into North American theatres, and anyone who thinks the horror genre has been in a rut the last few years needs to check this out. To me, SINISTER is one of the most invigorating, and yes- “sinister” horror movies to come along since KILL LIST.
Scott Derrickson, who made a big genre splash a few years ago with THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, returns to horror with a similarly classy film that takes the familiar trappings of the genre and turns them on their head. Certainly, the found-footage thing has been done to death. However, the beat-up, scratchy old Super 8 snuff films- which are used sparingly, truly jolted me throughout- and to be sure, they're only the icing on the cake. The rest of the film ditches that format- making this an interesting hybrid.
Like many of the really good horror movies one can list off, SINISTER is a slow-burn. Don't go in expecting wall-to-wall scares, as that doesn't seen to be Derrickson's (who co-wrote with former AICN contributor C. Robert Cargill) game. Like in EMILY ROSE, he wants you invested in the characters, and to that end, his casting of Ethan Hawke in the lead is terrific. I've always admired Hawke as an actor, and while it's rare to see him outside the art-house circuit these days, he brings the same credibility to this that he would to any film, and it's refreshing to see a horror flick where the “star name” in the lead role isn't simply around to collect a paycheck.
Rather, Hawke helps build a strong, well-rounded lead, being a tortured author whose one bout with greatness came and went too fast, and has left him as a struggling family man (although with the stunning Juliet Rylance as his wife, I can't say I feel too bad for the guy). He hopes his chronicle of this series of grisly murders will make him this generation's Truman Capote, but suffice to say, things don't quite pan out.
Without revealing too much, I will say that SINISTER ratchets up the terror slowly but surely, with each successive super 8 movie being all the more harrowing (handily earning it's R- although the use of gore isn't overdone). Hawke's investigation plunges him deeper and deeper into a game of cat and mouse with a truly diabolical force, the likes of which he can't process. In a memorable scene opposite Vincent D'Onofrio as an Occult professor, who clues him in on the depravity of some of the history related to his findings, we get a pretty intriguing mythos that could potentially be examined in subsequent installments, but we'll see...
In addition to Hawke and D'Onofrio, the film benefits from a really strong supporting cast, with former Republican Senator (and one time presidential hopeful) Fred Dalton Thompson adding some gravitas to his brief part as a small-town sheriff, while James Ransone (THE WIRE) is solid as the initially dopey deputy that's more clever than he lets on. I should also mention the jaw-dropping musical score by genre vet Christopher Young, which adds to the vibe of the film immeasurably, and is one of the better scores of the year (so far).
Probably my only issue with SINISTER is that I felt it was maybe a shade long at times, and possibly loosing a few minutes here and there might have quickened the pace a bit. Then again, it's a slow burn, so that's probably the intention. It also takes Hawke a little too long to realize the depth of the shit creek he's found himself wading in. Otherwise, this is a pretty great little horror flick- and one that anyone who wants a good scare needs to check out.
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